Our Jewish Institutions Must Speak Up and Protect Transgender Children
It’s been a bad week for transgender people. The Departments of Education and Justice sent a letter to schools across America withdrawing the guidance offered by the Obama administration designed to keep transgender children safe at school.
The guidance was, at its essence, a clarification of the existing protections afforded under Title IX. It laid out “best practices” for keeping transgender children safe, including allowing them to use the bathroom that corresponds to their true gender. While the actions of the Trump administration don’t change the existing law, they do add a level of chaos and confusion and lead many to believe they are no longer required to keep transgender children safe.
There are some details that have been missing from the conversation that are incredibly important to remember. According to the Williams Institute, 41% of all transgender people have attempted suicide due to lack of societal acceptance. I want to be clear about that: nearly 1 in 2 transgender people have attempted to take their own life. Not because they are transgender, but because they are not accepted in their families, schools, houses of worship, and in society as who they are.
There is no situation in Judaism where this is acceptable. In fact, Judaism is quite clear: when someone’s life is on the line, we must do everything in our power to keep them safe.
It’s time for our Jewish institutions to speak up. It’s time for our institutions to say with a loud voice, “Transgender children, teens, and adults are welcome and celebrated here, exactly as they are.” I want to see Facebook status and declarations on web pages and hear it in sermons from Rabbis in every synagogue, school, camp, and agency from every denomination. I want them to be explicit and clear.
Some will say that it should be enough for an agency or school to say “We welcome all people here.” It’s not. Judaism places a high premium on the value of words. Our tradition teaches — and our liturgy emphasizes — that “God spoke and the world came into being.” God created the entire world with nothing but words. Words matter.
No one can infer your inention unless you are explicit.
To be sure, there is great precedent in Judaism for affirming and celebrating people of all genders. The Mishna, Talmud, and our law codes discuss six different genders. Six genders! The Torah teaches us that the very first human being was neither male nor female but a combination of both — what we call intersex today.
There are ultra-Orthodox rabbis from decades ago who have given guidance on halachic medical transition and the Reconstructionist, Reform, and Conservative movements have all come out strongly in favor of transgender inclusion and acceptance. There are LGBTQ agencies like Keshet and SOJOURN and many others working across the country within the Jewish commnity and the larger community. The resources exist. The precedents exist.
Our Jewish agencies must become explicit in their support. The Trump administration has already confirmed it will be fighting against transgender children in schools, in society, and at the Supreme Court. We know that the Trump administration’s antagonism toward transgender children will come with a body count. We know that some will take their own lives because of these decisions.
The data also show that when kids have just one trusted adult such as a teacher, rabbi, counselor, or family member, their suicide risk drops 25%. If they have two trusted adults? It drops by almost 50%. With three trusted adults the risk is almost non-existent. Imagine how many lives we could save if our children had entire synagogues, camps, schools, and agencies who loved them and valued them.
Our Jewish agencies and institutions not only have the chance to help transgender children stay alive, they have a responsibility to do everything in their power to fight for them. Our synagogues, camps, and schools won’t be able to change the administration. They won’t be able to change how public schools behave, but they can be a refuge and a retreat for our most vulnerable themselves.
Our Jewish institutions can be the safest place our children know. It’s time for us to make sure they know that.